Irene Lewis plans to close the curtain on her tenure as artistic… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
During a skit in "The Second City Does Baltimore," the hit show at Center Stage, cast member Megan Wilkins pops out sporting a thick New York accent and a thicker wig to announce the pending premiere of "The Wire: The Musical."
Hometown audiences quickly recognize the target of the impersonation — Irene Lewis, whose colorful, if not universally admired, tenure as Center Stage artistic director is drawing to a close after 20 years. Not surprisingly, Lewis has an opinion about the portrayal.
"She's being too nice," Lewis says. "She's not being aggressive enough. And she's short."
"The wig is good, though. And one thing they got right: I would produce a musical of 'The Wire.' "
This week, while the Lewis takeoff continues drawing laughs upstairs in the Head Theater, the real Lewis will be challenging audiences downstairs in the Pearlstone Theater with her first-ever staging of a Harold Pinter play. The production, currently in previews, opens Wednesday.
Lewis didn't plan for "The Homecoming" to serve as her leave-taking. Although she had been thinking about stepping down, board president Jay Smith beat her to the punch early last year.
"The board just decided that it was the right time to begin the process of transitioning to a new artistic director," Smith said in April. He added that giving Lewis a contract for one more season was evidence that she was not being forced out.
"I was so busy then," she says, "trying to balance the budget and planning the season. I hadn't lifted up my head. I thought, 'Oh, my God, yeah, I have to get out of here. I don't want to run this anymore.' "
By the time both sides agreed on a departure, the 2010-2011 lineup was already pretty much set.
"I would have preferred to have a chance to think about a season I would end on," Lewis says. "Would I have done Pinter to close? I doubt it. I've never done a Pinter play. Maybe I would have repeated [Shakespeare's] 'Twelfth Night.' "
Her critics will no doubt continue their mantra about Lewis and her handling of the company — she's too difficult; she doesn't hire local talent; being a commuter from New York, she has never connected meaningfully with Baltimore's arts community; her theatrical concepts aren't innovative or persuasive enough.
But money, perhaps, still counts for something. And the director's swan-song season at Center Stage has been marked by success.
At the start, there was the Lewis-directed revival of the Broadway musical "The Wiz," which became the company's highest-grossing show. The production of "ReEntry," based on interviews with service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, sparked considerable reaction and was simulcast to several venues around the world. The current Second City show is so popular that the company raised some ticket prices for it after the opening.
"And we added 500 new subscribers," Lewis adds, "even in this economy. So I'm feeling fine."
Center Stage has enjoyed steady financial health for years; various cost-cutting measures helped keep the current $6.2 million budget in the black. The endowment is beginning to climb back to its pre-crash $20 million level.
All of this should give the next artistic director a strong head start.
Four finalists for Lewis' job have been selected; a decision is expected to be announced in March. (Managing director Debbie Chinn resigned late last year, which will give a new artistic director greater leeway in setting his or her own stamp on the company.)
Meanwhile, Center Stage remains very much an Irene Lewis enterprise. "I'm still producing the other plays this season," she says. "I'm still going to finance meetings." Remaining this season: adaptations of the David Guterson novel "Snow Falling on Cedars" and the Dostoevsky classic "Crime and Punishment."
As for "The Homecoming," it seems a fitting Lewis farewell vehicle after all. The 1967 Pinter play is brilliant, witty, acerbic, uncomfortable and perplexing — adjectives that have been used to describe Lewis over the years.
"Irene challenges herself and the audience in a way that isn't always done in theater companies," says Felicity Jones, who has returned to Center Stage for this production after working with Lewis at Center Stage in " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore" and "Lady Windermere's Fan."
The plot of "The Homecoming" revolves around the biting patriarch Max, who shares his London home with two sons and his brother, Sam. Teddy, Max's oldest son, teaches philosophy at an American college. His unexpected visit with his wife, Ruth, is the catalyst for inevitable sexual and familial tensions.
"We're all stressed," says Center Stage associate artist Laurence O'Dwyer, who has the role of Sam (he appeared in at least two dozen other productions during the Lewis years). "But Irene's analytical mind has been very helpful."
Analytical, but not stuffy, Jones says.